The importance of the ‘paradise on top of the mountain’ in igniting interest in soccer, or anything

I’m reading Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

In it, Coyle reinforces a key ingredient that I think is missing in soccer in the U.S.: cues that ignite an interest in the sport and guide long-term development toward mastery in youth, or as Coyle describes: “a paradise at the top of the mountain.”

Coyle illustrates the point with a few talent hotbeds. He writes about KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools and how KIPP teachers use making it to college to ignite interest in being good students and guide their long-term development, and how that starts in the first minutes a child is in the program:

If we had to classify the primal cues the KIPP students received in those first few minutes, they would fall into three categories.

  1. You belong to a group.
  2. Your group is together in a strange and dangerous new world.
  3. That new world is shaped like a mountain, with the paradise of college at the top.

These three signals might seem unique. But in fact they’re identical to the primal cues that any young Brazilian soccer players or Russian tennis players might receive, if you replaced the word college with the words being Ronaldinho/Kournikova.

I think there’s more than wanting to be like Ronaldinho, or now Neymar (the book was published in 2009) or Gabriel Jesus. Those top level successes serve as one level of inspiration.

But, young soccer players in Brazil have closer-to-home role models that they aspire to be like, as well: their older siblings and neighbors and the local club’s first team who are all pretty good.

They are more likely to interact with these role models than their counterparts in the U.S.

First, there’s more free play where kids of all ages play together and younger kids learn from older ones.

Contrast that to the U.S. where free play in soccer is almost nonexistent, so that first level of ignition from the older to younger kids doesn’t take place.

Second, in the soccer clubs, the older kids might serve as the younger kids’ coaches. The young kids get to know them and want to watch their first or second team games on the weekends, which further motivates them to want to play like their older heroes, so they, too, someday can make the club’s first team.

Since, school sports aren’t a thing in Brazil like they are in the U.S., these first teamers don’t disappear from the club for half the year to play with their school team, with strict rules to keep them from playing with their club during that time. So, they are there more often to build those relationships with the younger players.

And, this is important. If you’re an 8 year-old and your team is winning, it’s easy to think you are doing well and don’t have anything to work on. You no vision of what to work toward.

But, if you’re an 8 yo, and winning games, but still not playing like your team’s 16 yo assistant coach, then you feel like you have something to work toward because you know that is what it will take to make it to the first team some day. You have a vision of what to work toward.

Contrast this with the U.S. where club soccer kids are separated in age and skill levels, and rarely get to interact with older players. They’re coached by adults. So, these youth don’t get to know the club’s teenage players or the local high school’s players.

Because of this, it’s rare for the second level of ignition to take place, within the club, where younger players want to work toward being like players who are just a few years older than them.

In other words, soccer players in the U.S. rarely get a glimpse of the the right “mountain with paradise at the top,” when it comes to soccer.

So, they are more like the 8 yo’s winning games and not having a long-term vision of what they should be working toward. They think, “We’re winning. We must be doing something right.”

Three beliefs in soccer in the U.S. that need to change


Current belief: Talent is developed.

What this should change to: Talent is discovered.



Current belief: We need to identify the top level talent and focus on making them better.

What this should change to: “Push up the bottom to push up the top” – Tom Byer



Current belief: We know what a good player is and what a good team is.

What this should change to: Maybe we don’t.


In future posts, I write in more detail on how the current belief holds us back and how the new belief could move us forward.

Preventing injuries in soccer

The last Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast with health care professional from the HSS Sports Safety Program about sports injuries is worth a listen.

It’s the first I’ve heard anyone support my pet theory that sports injuries are caused more by improper body positioning than overuse. The HSS program offers a free 10-15 minute online course (at the link above) to teach proper technique for accelerating, decelerating and changing direction.

I’m going to check it out.

I explained my pet theory last year in my post, The case for juggling.

It’s all about forces. When your body is in proper position, game forces are spread across the body evenly. I think proper position is shoulders, hips, knees and toes are contained within a rectangle.

Reaching outside of that rectangle results in concentrating game forces into smaller areas of the body and are more likely to results in breaks or tears in muscle tissue. That might be someone reaching out with their foot to make a tackle and concentrating all the force from the ball and player behind the ball into the ACL, for example.

It just so happens same position is also most effective for executing soccer’s skills.

You will win more tackles if you aren’t reaching because you will have your body weight on your side.

Staying in that position improves everything — dribbling, passing, receiving and even defending.

That’s one reason why training proper technique on soccer skills is important. It not only makes for better players that can make it to higher levels, but it also reduces the chance of injury.

I also think that the perceived ‘rise in sports injuries,’ (if there is one), is more due to having more teenagers in the sport who don’t know proper ball technique. Bad technique + the weight and strength of teenagers = damage.

The podcast host offered another theory to explain the purported rise in sports injuries: kids not getting a lot of free physical play time as kids, and never learning the motor skills to keep them in proper position.

Anyway…I enjoyed that Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast and I recommend it.

Great soccer analysis and when a win isn’t a win

John Pranjic and Joey Cascio have been providing great, in-depth analysis of the recent USMNT and USYNT matches.

Here’s their latest, The Mirage of CONCACAF, on the USMNT v Cuba.

Listening to them will help you be able to pick up on small details that impact the game.

Just one example, they spend a good deal of time discussing how poor passing keeps the teams from playing out of the back — which is a style of play the coaches are trying to achieve.

But, they go further than just saying ‘poor passing’. They describe what was poor about it. Examples:

  • A defender not receiving the ball across his body, which reduces his options for next pass from 3-4 to 1.
  • A defender that takes too long to decide what to do after receiving the ball, letting pressure collapse leading to a hurried pass.
  • A poorly aimed pass to the receiver’s near foot, which reduces his passing options and forces him to send it long, turning it over.

I don’t hear this level of analysis from announcers or the media.



Soccer is just 3 incentives away from Silicon Valley

This looks pretty cool:

But, I think this is still too top-down.

In my mind, it’s more about the USSF putting the right incentives in place and letting the regional and professional structure emerge from that.

That requires the USSF to see itself as the facilitator of competition rather than architects that believe they know what’s best.

The three basic incentives are:

  • Pro/rel
  • Solidarity payments
  • Training compensation

The first incentive (pro/rel) encourages people to invest in clubs to earn their way to the top by putting the best team on the field.

The second and third incentives encourage people to invest in clubs that will search for, train and gain exposure for all talent, not just the talent that can afford to pay club fees. These clubs aren’t as interested in climbing the pro/rel ladder, as they are in spreading the game and giving kids a chance to learn it.

If you put these incentives in place in soccer in the U.S., you get a soccer landscape that looks more like Silicon Valley and less like Mussolini.

Who taught Christian Pulisic to juggle?

When I juggle the ball, players often ask, “can you teach me that?” Or, a parent might ask, “can you teach my child?”


I can teach games to play that will help you learn, if you play them. Lots. But, there’s only one person that can teach you to juggle: You.

Christian taught himself to juggle.

No amount of instruction on technique will make you any better at juggling. Only practice will.

That’s true of all soccer techniques.

One of my Twitter pals, recently posted:

It’s easy to forget #1 and #2 and overrate the importance of #3-#5.

Jason also posted:

US Soccer isn’t the only one that plays this game. This mirrors a common ploy used by coaches and clubs in pay-to-play soccer. Get enough kids and the law of averages says you will get a few that go on to bigger and better things.

Clubs and coaches claim those kids to attract even more who think the club can turn all their players into those successes.

Clubs can help. But, it’s good to remember that 95% of a player’s potential is determined by #1 and #2.

U.S. Soccer: Exhibit 101 on why monopolies are not good

U.S. Soccer is dysfunctional.

But, that’s not what holds soccer in the U.S, back. Most organizations, even seemingly successful ones, are dysfunctional to some extent. Federations of top soccer countries are also dysfunctional.

The issue with soccer in the U.S. is that US Soccer wants to be the sole solver of the problems of developing talent and finding the best talent for the national team…


…they actively stifle and restrict others from coming up with their own solutions to these problems.

The second part of that statement (after the AND…) is the most debilitating.

As the quote from Rory Sutherland in the previous post points out, a good thing about markets is that they solve the same problem in different ways.

Developing and finding talent are problems best suited to be solved in different ways and letting those solutions compete.

In the markets of products and services, this is good because a number of solutions might work well.

It’s good that we have so many organizations, for example, willing to solve the problem of dining out. That gives us a great variety to choose from, and we don’t have to settle for one organization’s solution to this problem.

We have so many organizations working on dining out because there is financial incentive to do so, even if the risk of failure is also high.

We also don’t have a ‘national restaurant federation’ that actively seeks to shut down restaurants that don’t match what it believes to be the formula for success, like where it thinks the restaurant should be located or how many seats they think it should have.

Rather the attitude is, ‘there really is no formula for success, you have to try and see and maybe you will happen onto something.’

In the market of developing and finding talent for the national soccer team, it’s a little trickier because at some point the selection does need to be narrowed to small set of players.

But, much better to narrow this selection to the top players from the froth of a competitive landscape than an anemic one.

Let’s say you were competing with other nations to see who has the best restaurants and you could select a team of 20 restaurants in the competition.

Would you rather be able to select your field from:

  1. A landscape where a single, dominant restaurant has stifled competition and only advanced it’s idea of a good restaurant.
  2. A landscape like we have now, where anybody can give it a try and the ones that do the best survive and compete against each other to get even better?

I’ll take door #2, please.

It might make my selection tough. How do I narrow the list of 1,000s of top restaurants down to 20. What if I choose poorly?

But, that’s the point. I’d have a much deeper pool to choose from and I could probably pick random lists of 20 restaurants out of the top 1,000 or so and still fare well in the competition.

So, no matter how dysfunctional I am or how poor my taste in restaurants is, even if I end up picking the third best team because of my bad biases, it would still be pretty darned good.

If I were limited to door #1, I’d probably have what we have now: a narrow field at the top that’s 1 or 2 deep at each position. My bad biases might pick poorly at a few positions that ruin us.

Door #2 gives me a field that’s 6 or 7 deep at each position and nearly idiot-proof.

This is why U.S. Soccer should adopt the incentive structures that have worked well in other countries to encourage, much like we have in restaurants, lots more folks to get in the game of helping to solve the problem of finding and developing talent.

These incentives are:

  • Promotion/relegation
  • Solidarity payments and training compensation
  • Sponsoring competitions on the field to discover the best players and best ways of playing the game

These incentives encourage folks to find the best talent, whether they can pay a club fee or not, and field them in competitions to put all ideas about what a good player is and what a good team is to the test.